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H809: Week 7 - Learning Theories (Part 1)

April 2009

Weeks 7 to 9 of the course are very inter-related and I have been constantly feeling as if I don't want to blog about the course content until I have figured out how it all fits together. However, the next assignment is about to take over my life so I suspect that I had better just go for it regardless!

The topic for Week 7  was 'Learning Theories' and the week commenced with a discussion of four theories that you quickly stumble upon if you hang around educational circles, namely behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism and social constructivism.

These terms are not always used consistently by different people, but my understanding is that they are usually regarded as the following four 'philosophical' viewpoints:

There are a few ambiguities in what is described by these theories that I haven't resolved yet:

In some ways, each of the four theories is saying that the previous model is an over-simplification. I think though there are also a couple of other implicit distinctions.

One of these relates to the extent to which learning can be systematised. I get the impression with constructivism there is a notion that learning is messy, whereas behaviourism and cognitivism present learning much more as a nice neatly ordered process where you learn things linearly in a particular order.

The other difference is the idea of learning being about the transfer of facts and information versus learning being about understanding and meaning. I think the words used here are confusing and there are actually two distinctions: the extent to which you are relating new things to what you know already (i.e. the extent to which you are engaging in mental activity) and the extent to which you are actively engaging in memorisation. This explains for instance, why 'meaningful memorisation' is possible and why it is indeed possible to learn things deeply from books even though they are often associated with knowledge and transfer models of learning.

However as well as being used to describe philosophical stances, the terms additionally describe approaches to teaching:

There seems to be a bit of a leapfrog here from the philosophical postions that I don't totally understand. I am happy with the idea that philosophy is to some extent an attempt to do psychology by introspection, but I feel like I would like a better argument that we should learn via particular types of social interaction than that 'it is possible to learn via social interaction' or that 'all interactions have a social element'.

I also think that we are falling into the trap of trying to absolutely compare learning when we start to talk about the best way to teach. For example, how can you say whether watching a lecture by Hans Rosling is a better or worse than experimenting with the statistics yourself? They are just totally different experiences. I suspect that any theory about how best to teach needs to take into account what type of learning you are trying to achieve.

Even behaviourism, the easiest of the four to dismiss on the grounds that there is plenty of evidence that extrinsic motivation doesn't automatically lead to intrinsic motivation, is hard to ignore completely given the prevalence of assessment in education. On a practical basis, if you are in a context where you have to assess your students, it is useful to know something about the impact that different types of extrinsic rewards are likely to have.

So, all in all, I find the notions of behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism and social constructivism not entire satisfactory as a description of theories of learning. I think it's a shame quite how unquestioned this taxonomy usually is so I'm glad that the course has challenged us to look at it critically. There is also question of why the categorisation is so popular and why the social constructivist position has emerged dominant. The course makes an interesting suggestion that is part of a larger trend and I think that historically there certainly are signs of a general shift towards an emphasis on the social and sensitivity towards the perspectives and experiences of other people.